Preventing Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. More often then not, the condition arises when you are high up on a mountain having ascended too quickly. As the altitude increases, the percentage of oxygen in the air remains constant but the pressure decreases and the air becomes thinner, making breathing more difficult. The most common symptoms associated with mild altitude sickness are:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing difficulties

Although these appear mild, if left untreated they can potentially become fatal. More severe altitude sickness can result in chest pain and vomiting, in addition to the aforementioned symptoms.

How to prevent altitude sickness

If you are planning any form of holiday that involves skiing, hiking or trekking, then adequate preparation and proper acclimatisation is the best way to prevent altitude sickness. Thus doing a number of things to help the body to adapt to the lower oxygen level is vital in preventing the condition from occurring.

1. Ascend slowly over several days, taking the time to acclimatise to higher altitudes

Mountain altitude

2. Keep well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

Hydration

3. Do not smoke, drink or use depressant medications such as tranquilizers or sleeping pills, which reduce the respiratory drive.

smoking/alcohol

4. Eat a high calorie diet. particularly focusing on foods high in carbohydrates

Food

5. Wear protective eyewear to protect from exposure of sunburn or sunstroke

Protective eyewear

6. Do not ignore the symptoms of altitude sickness if they occur

Altitude sickness

Where am I at risk?

Altitude sickness is most common among those who spend time at high altitudes such as mountaineers or skiers. Thus those who travel to high altitude locations are more at risk of experiencing symptoms of the condition. In these environments altitude sickness can affect anyone. There are no specific factors, such as age, sex or physical condition, that increase a person’s likelihood of getting the condition.

Is there treatment available?

Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, a light diet and rest can be used to treat mild headaches and other symptoms while allowing the body to acclimatise. However, prescription-only medications such as Diamox can be used to help reduce the severity of the symptoms and can also be used to help prevent altitude sickness from occurring, provided they are taken alongside appropriate precautionary measures, and so they can be highly beneficial to people planning on ascending to high altitudes.

Although it is not currently licensed in the UK as a treatment for altitude sickness, Diamox is often prescribed to people who are at risk of suffering from altitude sickness. It uses the active ingredient acetazolamide, a diuretic which increases the amount of urine produced by the body. This changes the acidity of the blood. It also reduces the fluid around the lungs and brain, which helps with breathing.

There are a number of minor side effects associated with this medication such as headache, dizziness, tiredness, digestive problems, blurred vision, numbness, excess urine, fever, weak muscles and a change in libido.

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